Every hotel room in town has been sold out for weeks.
Restaurants are expecting huge crowds.
One block of 1st Street will be roped off, and a painting horse is being brought in to entertain visitors.
It could be the biggest weekend ever for Dixon, Ill., but taxpayers have a long way to go to make up for the $53 million blow to their books.
When a federal judge ordered the sale of 400 horses, owned by former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell, Mayor Jim Burke knew an opportunity was coming. Crundwell, accused of bilking more than $53 million from the town of 15,733 people, had an international reputation as a top-notch horse breeder.
“It is my understanding it’ll be one of the largest horse sales in the history of the country,” Burke said in early July. “People will come from all over and stay for days. It’s economic development at its worst.”
This week, Burke was doing some math.
“We’re expecting at least 2,000 people at the ranch,” he said. “If they spend just 10 bucks each, that’s $20,000.”
Proposals still are coming in, he said, from Dixon restaurants and others in food service who are competing for a chance to sell breakfast and lunch at the Crundwell ranch during the two-day auction Sunday, Sept. 23, and Monday, Sept. 24.
“We want people to make money, but we don’t want people to have to stand in line for an hour,” the mayor said. “It’s kind of a captive audience.”
Bidders and spectators will not be allowed to park at or near the ranch on Red Brick Road, according to rules established by the U.S. Marshals Service. So, thousands of people will be shuttled to the auction site on buses provided by the Lee-Ogle Transit System.
“They’re using about 30 shuttle buses, and they’re doing it for cost,” Burke said. “It’s ultimately coming out of the city’s pocket, one way or another.”
But the liquidation of 400 horses, including several prize stallions and mares that could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars each, is intended to replace some of what is missing from Dixon’s “pocket.”
When the U.S. Marshals Service asked a judge for permission to sell the Crundwell herd, which was costing the agency $200,000 a month in care and feeding, the 59-year-old defendant did not object to the plan.
Crundwell has pleaded innocent to a charge of wire fraud. If she is convicted, the money raised at auction and on the sale of other assets will go into a restitution fund for Dixon. But the Marshals Service will be paid back first.
Virginia-based Professional Auction Services Inc., which was awarded the contract to sell the horses, announced plans in early August for a two-day live auction and online auctions. The announcement prompted an immediate response by the horse industry, according to auctioneer and company co-owner Mike Jennings.
“We’ve been doing this for 34 years, and I’ve never seen this kind of interest,” he said. “It’s the quality of the horses.
“Traditionally in the auction business, if it’s a distress sale — foreclosure, death, bankruptcy … buyers are much more confident they will be able to buy.”
Plenty of people have been interested in buying Crundwell horses in the past, he said, but she priced them above their market value, suggesting she did not want to sell.
Jennings said his company held a preview recently of 55 Crundwell horses that are boarded in Collinsville, Texas, including 11 world champion mares. The preview was “well-attended,” he said, and included people who were looking over the horses on behalf of buyers in Mexico and Brazil.
The international appeal of the Crundwell herd has come as a pleasant surprise to many people in Dixon.
Lyn Milano, owner of the Crawford House Inn bed and breakfast, said her rooms sold out weeks ago, and she has been directing callers to nearby towns.
“There are people coming from as far away as England,” she said. “A man called from there, and I couldn’t take him, so I sent him to Oregon (Ill.).”
Many of the out-of-towners will descend upon Dixon with their horse trailers in tow. Some of them have found the Green River Saddle Club in neighboring Amboy, Ill.
“We have 63 (camping) sites with electricity available and others without electricity,” said Roxanne Albers, treasurer of the horse-riding club. “We are at least half full. We have people from Canada and Minnesota, and I’m hearing that every hotel is booked within a 40-mile radius of Dixon.”
The mayor said he hopes Dixon’s downtown becomes a place for horse enthusiasts and spectators to congregate. In fact, he is planning on it.
Burke said he read in an agricultural publication about a horse in Indiana that paints, holding a brush in its teeth. He contacted the horse’s owner and arranged for a trip to Dixon.
“I got the Fine Arts Center involved,” he said. “We’ll block off First Street and have a farm, barn, horse-show exhibit. We won’t be charging anything to get in.
“We’ve got a nice element we’re going to add to this whole thing.”